The Background of Paul's View of the Law
Paul's View of the Law
A Look at Some Misunderstood Texts
A Look - Continued
A Look - Continued
A Look - Continued
The Law and the Gentiles
In studying some of Paulís negative comments about the Law, we noted that such comments were occasioned by the Apostleís effort to undo the damage done by false teachers who were exalting the Law, especially circumcision, as a means of salvation. To bring into sharper focus Paulís criticism of the Law, we now consider why the Gentiles were tempted to adopt legalistic practices like circumcision.
Paulís letters were written to congregations made up predominantly of Gentile converts, most of whom were former "God-fearers" (1 Thess 1:9; 1 Cor 12:2; Gal 4:8; Rom 11:13; 1:13; Col 1:21; Eph 2:11). A crucial problem among Gentile Christians was their right as Gentiles to enjoy full citizenship in the people of God without becoming members of the covenant community through circumcision.
A Jewish Problem.
No clear-cut answer to this question existed in Paulís time. Some Jews held that Gentiles had to observe only a limited number of commandments (Noachic Laws). Other Jews, however, like the House of Shammai, insisted that Gentiles had to observe the whole Law, including circumcision. In other words, they had to become full-fledged members of the covenant community in order to share in the blessings of the world-to-come.75
Lloyd Gaston perceptively notes that "it was because of this unclarity that legalismóthe doing of certain works to win Godís favor and be counted righteousóarose a Gentile and not a Jewish problem at all."76 Salvation was for all who were members of the covenant community, but since the God-fearers were not under the covenant, they had to establish their own righteousness to gain such an assurance of salvation.
Marcus Barth has shown that the phrase "works of the Law" is not found in Jewish texts and designates the adoption of selected Jewish practices by the Gentiles to ensure their salvation as part of the covenant people of God.77 Recognition of this legalistic Gentile attitude is important to our understanding of the background of Paulís critical remarks about the Law.
A Christian Problem.
After his conversion and divine commission to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, Paul understood that Gentiles share in the blessing of salvation without having to become part of the covenant community through circumcision. To defend this conviction, we noted earlier that Paul appeals in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 to the example of Abraham who became the father of all who believe by faith before he was circumcised.
In proclaiming his non-circumcision Gospel, Paul faced a double challenge. On one hand, he faced the opposition of Jews and Jewish-Christians because they failed to understand ("Israel did not understand"óRom 10:19) that, through Christ, God had fulfilled His promises to Abraham regarding the Gentiles. On the other hand, Paul had to deal with the misguided efforts of Gentiles who were tempted to adopt circumcision and other practices to ensure their salvation by becoming members of the covenant community (Gal 5:2-4).
Law as Document of Election.
The Law came to mean a revelation of Godís electing will manifested in His covenant with Israel. Obviously, this view created a problem for the uncircumcised Gentiles because they felt excluded from the assurance of salvation provided by the covenant. This insecurity naturally led Gentiles to "desire to be under Law" (Gal 4:21), that is, to become full-fledged covenant members by receiving circumcision (Gal 5:2). Paul felt compelled to react strongly against this trend because it undermined the universality of the Gospel.
To squelch the Gentilesí "desire to be under Law," Paul appeals to the Law (Pentateuch), specifically to Abraham, to argue that the mothers of his two children, Ishmael and Isaac, stand for two covenants: the first based on works and the second on faith (Gal 4:22-31)óthe first offering "slavery" and the second resulting in "freedom." The first, Hagar, who bears "children of slavery," is identified with the covenant of Mount Sinai (Gal 4:24).
Why does Paul attack so harshly the Sinai covenant which, after all, was established by the same God who made a covenant with Abraham? Besides, did not the Sinai covenant contain provisions of grace and forgiveness through the sanctuary services (Ex 25-30), besides principles of conduct (Ex 20-23)? The answer to these questions is to be found in Paulís concern to establish the legitimacy of the salvation of the Gentiles as Gentiles.
To accomplish this goal, Paul attacks the understanding of the Law (covenant) as an exclusive document of election. This does not mean that he denies the possibility of salvation to Jews who accepted Christ as the fulfillment of the Sinai covenant. On the contrary, he explicitly acknowledges that just as he was "entrusted with the Gospel to the uncircumcised," so "Peter had been entrusted with the Gospel to the circumcised" (Gal 2:7).
Paul does not explain what was the basic difference between the two Gospels. We can presume that since the circumcision had become equated with the covenant, the Gospel to the circumcised emphasized that Christ through His blood ratified the Sinai covenant by making it operative (Matt 26:28). This would make it possible for Jews to be saved as Jews, that is, while retaining their identity as a covenant people.
Note that Paul does not deny the value of circumcision for the Jews. On the contrary, he affirms: "Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the Law; but if you break the Law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision" (Rom 2:25). Again in Romans 9 to 11, Paul does not rebuke the Jews for being "Jewish" in their lifestyle (Rom 11:1), but rather for failing to understand that the Gentiles in Christ have equal access to salvation because Christ is the goal of the Law.
Several conclusions emerge from our study of Paulís view of the Law. We noted that prior to his conversion, Paul understood the Law like a Pharisee, namely, as the external observance of commandments in order to gain salvation (2 Cor 5:16-17). After his encounter with Christ on the Damascus Road, Paul gradually came to realize that his Pharisaic view of the Law as a way of salvation was wrong, because the Old Testament teaches that salvation was already promised to Abraham through the Christ, the Seed to come, 430 years before the giving of the Law at Sinai (Gal 3:17).
From the perspective of the Cross, Paul rejected the Pharisaic understanding of the Law as a means of salvation and accepted the Old Testament view of the Law as a revelation of Godís will for human conduct. We found that for Paul the Law is and remains Godís Law (Rom 7:22, 25), because it was given by God (Rom 9:4; 3:2), was written by Him (1 Cor 9:9; 14:21; 14:34), reveals His will (Rom 2:17, 18), bears witness to His righteousness (Rom 3:21), and is in accord with His promises (Gal 3:21).
Being a revelation of Godís will for mankind, the Law reveals the nature of sin as disobedience to God. Paul explains that "through the Law comes the knowledge of sin" (Rom 3:20) because the Law causes people to recognize their sins and themselves as sinners. It is evident that this important function of the Law could not have been terminated by Christ, since the need to acknowledge sin in oneís life is as fundamental to the life of Christians today as it was for the Israelites of old.
The function of Christís redemptive mission was not to abrogate the Law, as many Christians mistakenly believe, but to enable believers to live out the principles of Godís Law in their lives. Paul affirms that, in Christ, God has done what the Law by itself could not doónamely, He empowers believers to live according to the "just requirements of the Law."
The new life in Christ enables the Christian to keep the Law, not as an external code, but as a loving response to God. This is the very thing that the Law by itself cannot do, because being an external standard of human conduct, it cannot generate a loving response in the human heart. By contrast, "Christís love compels us" (2 Cor 5:14) to respond to Him by living according to the moral principles of Godís Law (John 14:15).
Paul recognizes that the observance of the Law can tempt people to use it unlawfully as a means to establish their own righteousness before God. This was the major problem of his Gentile converts who were tempted to adopt practices like circumcision in order to gain acceptance with God. Paul exposes as hopeless all attempts to be justified in Godís sight by works of the Law because
"no human being will be justified in his sight by the works of the Law, since through the Law comes knowledge of sin" (Rom 3:20).
Human beings in their fallen condition can never fully observe Godís Law.
What Paul radically rejects is not of the Law, but of legalism, that is, the attempt to establish oneís righteousness through the external observance of the Law. Legalism ultimately blinds a person to the righteousness which God has made available as a free gift through Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 10:3). This was the problem with the false teachers who were promoting circumcision as a way of salvation without Christ. By so doing, they were propagating the false notion that salvation is a human achievement rather than a divine gift.
The mounting pressure of Judaizers who were urging circumcision upon the Gentiles made it necessary for Paul to attack the exclusive covenant concept of the Law. "But," as George Howard points out, "under other circumstances he [Paul] might have insisted on the importance of Israelís retention of her distinctiveness."79
An understanding of the different circumstances that occasioned Paulís discussion of the Law is essential for resolving the apparent contradiction between the positive and negative statements he makes about the Law. For example, in Ephesians 2:15 Paul speaks of the Law as having been "abolished" by Christ, while in Romans 3:31, he explains that justification by faith in Jesus Christ does not overthrow the Law but "establishes" it. In Romans 7:6, he states that "now we are discharged from the Law" while a few verses later he writes that "the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good" (Rom 7:12). In Romans 3:28, he maintains that "a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law," yet in 1 Corinthians 7:19, he states that "neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God."
How can Paul view the Law both as "abolished" (Eph 2:15) and "established" (Rom 3:31), unnecessary (Rom 3:28) and necessary (1 Cor 7:19; Eph 6:2, 3; 1 Tim 1:8-10)? Our study shows that the resolution to this apparent contradiction is found in the different contexts in which Paul speaks of the Law. When he speaks of the Law in the context of salvation (justificationóright standing before God), especially in his polemic with Judaizers, he clearly affirms that Law-keeping is of no avail (Rom 3:20). On the other hand, when Paul speaks of the Law in the context of Christian conduct (sanctificationóright living before God), especially in dealing with antinomians, then he upholds the value and validity of Godís Law (Rom 7:12; 13:8-10; 1 Cor 7:19).
In summation, Paul criticizes not the moral value of the Law as guide to Christian conduct, but the soteriological (saving) understanding of the Law seen as a document of election that includes Jews and excludes Gentiles. Failure to distinguish in Paulís writing between his moral and soteriological usages of the Law, and failure to recognize that his criticism of the Law is directed especially toward Gentile Judaizers who were exalting the Law, especially circumcision, as a means of salvation, has led many to fallaciously conclude that Paul rejects the value and validity of the Law as a whole. Such a view is totally unwarranted because, as we have shown, Paul rejects the Law as a method of salvation but upholds it as a moral standard of Christian conduct.
Chapter 5, Part 3d
Chapter 6, Part 1
Notes to Chapter 5, Part 4
Written by: Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University